The story goes that Gordon Sondland was streaking over the US West Coast in his Learjet in 2016 when the bad news came. Jeb Bush’s campaign was on the phone — he was bowing out of the race for the White House.
The Portland, Oregon hotelier who had spent a fortune donating and raising funds for the Republican party was simply looking for a high-profile appointment was hoping Bush would deliver. But with Bush out of the race for the White House, he then turned to then candidate Donald Trump.
Fast forward more than three years later, the hotelier helped Trump occupy the Oval Office and Sondland got an ambassadorship he so craved. He’s the US envoy to the European Union and based in Brussels. All is right in his world, or so it seems.
According to Sondland, President Trump had also given him “other special assignments, including Ukraine.” And that’s where things start to become, err … just plain murky.
It’s one thing to amass a fortune building a string of hotels up and down the US, another to be the America’s Ambassador to the EU — but a completely different thing to be a central figure in an congressional impeachment inquiry that may very well determine the future of Potus.
For Sondland, everything hinges on that phone call of July 25 when Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open an investigation into former US vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The elder Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to run against Trump in the November 2020 election, the younger was on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma that had been investigated for corruption. No wrongdoing has been established.
Right now, Democratic congressional lawmakers believe that call is enough to meet the benchmark to remove Trump over a so-called “quid pro quo” — allegedly withholding $400 million in US aid to Ukraine unless it dug up dirt on the Bidens. The reasoning goes that after all the shenanigans over Russia’s involvement or otherwise in the 2016 race, now Ukraine was being roped in for 2020 — deja-vu all over again.
And just what role did Sondland play when it came to working with Rudolph Guiliani in co-opting or coercing Kiev, if any?
Heady questions then for Sondland, a man who likes to recount his rage-to-riches story. In his telling, it begins with his teenage parents fleeing Nazi Germany. His mother makes her way to Uruguay, while his father ends up fighting with the French Foreign Legion in North Africa. The two stay in touch through letters delivered by the Red Cross. They reunite after six years and make their way to Seattle, where they run a dry-cleaning business. Sondland is raised on Mercer Island, now an exclusive area east of downtown but one that in the 1960s and 1970s was more of a melting pot.
Sondland found success in business at an early age. At 28, as a commercial real estate broker, he was analysing whether his firm should become the listing agent for a hotel in bankruptcy. Reviewing the company’s financials, he saw an opportunity. He decided to look for investors and buy it himself instead. It was the start of what would become Provenance Hotels, a boutique chain with more than a dozen properties throughout the country.
As the company grew, Sondland donated millions of dollars to medical research, homeless programmes and the arts, including endowing in perpetuity free admission to the Portland Art Museum for anyone under 18.
But politics was taking root — a bagman collecting and donating funds for the GOP — and the occasional Democrat too.
With Bush off the 2016 ticket, Trump was the next obvious target. An ambassadorship followed a year ago, only after the president was satisfied where Sondland’s loyalty.
In September, when details of the July call became public and an edited transcript was released by the White House itself, Sondland was adamant there was no quid pro quo. So too in mid-October when he testified in closed sessions to congressional committees probing the probity of the July 25 call.
But all that has changed since Monday. Sondland did a volte-face on the quid pro quo: Yes, he told a Ukrainian official his country would likely not get that $400 million in security aid unless they pursued investigations demanded by President Trump. In a phrase that will long resonate in the pantheon of political platitudes, Sondland said he memory was “refreshed.”
“I now do recall a conversation on September 1, 2019, in Warsaw with Andriy Yermak”, a top adviser to the Ukrainian president. “I said that resumption of the US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
If there’s a moral here for Sondland, it’s to be careful what you wish for.